The US military made preparations Thursday night for limited strikes on Iran in retaliation for the downing of a US surveillance drone, but approval was abruptly withdrawn before the attacks were launched, a US official said.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss the operation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the targets would have included radars and missile batteries.
The New York Times reported that President Donald Trump had approved the strikes, but then called them off. The newspaper cited anonymous senior administration officials.
According to the report Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and CIA Director Gina Haspel had all backed military action.
The White House on Thursday night declined requests for information about whether Trump changed his mind.
According to the official who spoke to the Associated Press, the strikes were recommended by the Pentagon and were among the options presented to senior administration officials.
It was unclear how far the preparations had gone, but no shots were fired or missiles launched.
Newsweek reported that at least one of the targets would have been a Russian-made S-125 Neva/Pechora air defense missile system, which US forces believe was used to bring down the drone.
The military operation was called off around 7:30 p.m. Washington time, after Trump had spent most of Thursday discussing Iran strategy with top national security advisers and congressional leaders.
Asked earlier in the day about a US response to the attack, he said, “You’ll soon find out.”
Trump declared that “Iran made a very big mistake” by shooting down the US drone over the Strait of Hormuz. But he also suggested that shooting down the drone was a foolish error rather than an intentional escalation of the tensions that have led to rising fears of open military conflict.
On Thursday night Israeli security sources told Channel 13 they were concerned a lack of a decisive US response would embolden Iran to become more aggressive.
The US has insisted the drone was over international waters when it was shot down, while Iran has claimed it infiltrated its airspace.
“I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said at the White House. “I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”
Trump, who has said he wants to avoid war and negotiate with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, cast the shootdown as “a new wrinkle … a new fly in the ointment.” Yet he also said “this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you.”
He said the American drone was unarmed and unmanned and “clearly over international waters.” It would have “made a big, big difference” if someone had been inside, he said.
But fears of open conflict shadowed much of the discourse in Washington. As the day wore on, Trump summoned his top national security advisers and congressional leaders to the White House for an hour-long briefing in the Situation Room. Attendees included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Army Secretary Mark Esper, whom Trump has said he’ll nominate as Pentagon chief.
On Capitol Hill, leaders urged caution to avoid escalation, and some lawmakers insisted the White House must consult with Congress before taking any actions.
Pompeo and Bolton have advocated hardline policies against Iran, but Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said “the president certainly was listening” when congressional leaders at the meeting urged him to be cautious and not escalate the already tense situation.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said no specific options for a US response were presented at the more than hour-long meeting. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said he told Trump that conflicts have a way of escalating and “we’re worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The administration is engaged in what I would call measured responses.” And late Thursday, House Republicans on the Foreign Affairs, intelligence and Armed Services committees issued a statement using the same word, saying, “There must be a measured response to these actions.”
Meanwhile the US Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday warned of danger to flights “demonstrated by the Iranian surface-to-air missile shoot-down of a US unmanned aircraft system,” and barred American civilian aircraft from the area where it took place “until further notice.”
The restrictions are due to “heightened military activities and increased political tensions in the region, which present an inadvertent risk to US civil aviation operations and potential for miscalculation or misidentification,” the FAA said.
The downing of the huge, unmanned aircraft , which Iran portrayed as a deliberate defense of its territory rather than a mistake, was a stark reminder of the risk of military conflict between US and Iranian forces as the Trump administration combines a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions with a buildup of American forces in the region.
Pelosi said earlier she didn’t think Trump wanted war with Iran and the American people have “no appetite” for it either.
The US needs to be “strong and strategic” about protecting its interests but “cannot be reckless,” she said.
Talking tougher, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Iran a “murderous regime” and said, “If they’re itching for a fight they’re going to get one.”
The Trump administration has been putting increasing economic pressure on Iran for more than a year. It reinstated punishing sanctions following Trump’s decision to pull the US out of an international agreement intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from earlier sanctions.
The other world powers who remain signed on to the nuclear deal have set a meeting to discuss the US withdrawal and Iran’s announced plans to increase its uranium stockpile for June 28, a date far enough in the future to perhaps allow tensions to cool.
Citing Iranian threats, the US recently sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there. All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the US and Iran into an open conflict 40 years after Tehran’s Islamic Revolution.
Iran said Friday that it had “indisputable” evidence that the drone had violated its airspace.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, commander of U.S. Central Command air forces in the region, disputed that contention, telling reporters that the aircraft was 34 kilometers (21 miles) from the nearest Iranian territory and flying at high altitude when struck by a surface-to-air missile.
Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi told Swiss ambassador, Markus Leitner, whose country represents US interests in Iran, that “Even some parts of the drone’s wreckage have been retrieved from Iran”s territorial waters.”
Araghchi urged US forces to “respect Iran’s aerial and maritime borders and fully abide by international regulations,” the ministry said.